My first-ever cruise was on board NCL's Norwegian Star, leaving from Los Angeles with stops at Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. I had always wanted to go on a cruise but was put off by the formal nature of most of them. I'm not the dress-up kind of guy nor do I like to be put into forced social situations. I wanted a cruise vacation where I could do what I wanted, when I wanted it.
Fortunately, Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) provided the perfect solution. I went with a friend of mine and we decided on NCL's 7-day cruise to the Mexican Riviera, leaving from Los Angeles (in part because my friend lived in the L.A. area for many years). NCL's Freestyle Cruise environment was exactly what both of us were looking for and we definitely appreciated the freedom during our cruise.
The Norwegian Star is definitely an excellent ship for a first-time cruise. Colourfully decorated both inside and out, the ship helped create a fun atmosphere with its modern feel and hotel-like environment. I especially appreciated the many paintings and murals displayed on the walls of the corridors.
One thing I had heard prior to the cruise was that inside cabins tend to be small, even for just two people. I didn't know what to expect when we first entered our cabin (8501) but immediately was pleasantly surprised. The cabin was well-laid out and made efficient use of its space. Neither me or my friend felt cramped at all. The bathroom area also was a pleasant surprise. It was laid out in a very efficient manner and neither or us had any trouble moving around or attending to our personal needs. The shower was quite spacious actually for a small cabin.
Another positive experience was the food on-board. Some people have written criticisms of the food on the Star but neither myself or my friend found this to be true. The least I could say about the food was that the desserts were ordinary with little to make them stand out. However, they were still tasty. The main food was actually excellent in every restaurant or dining area we visited. The salad vegetables were very fresh, even on the last day of the cruise. The menu items were reasonably varied and very delicious. I also commend NCL for providing items that were low-fat and low-sugar as I am mildly diabetic.
The outdoor pool area of the Star consists of a central pool area, flanked on either side by hot tubs. In back of the pool is a stage where entertainment was presented each afternoon. Water slides were located on either side of this stage. The sunning area was a series of stepped decks with lounge chairs to lie out on in the sun. Everything was colourful and festive and provided a positive happy atmosphere for passengers to enjoy the time in the sun or in the water. This area also included buffets, a couple of bars and a BBQ area which was very convenient.
During the cruise, both me and my friend used the fitness centre. If I have to make any criticism of the Star's facilities, it would here. There were a few weight machines (some of which were more difficult to use than what I am used to at my gym), a rowing machine, a lot of treadmills and some dumb-bell weights. We were disappointed that there were no bar-bell weights available. However, we did make the most of what was available, including some time on the Star's outside jogging track (a 400 metre marked off ring of the ship's outer deck). We were able to put in the exercise we wanted. We just would have liked more choice.
One attraction on the Star both me and my friend really liked was the Spinnaker Lounge. We found a number of different activities available here, especially the late-night dance parties presented after midnight. There was a good sized dance floor available and the fist-pumping music was really great. We spent several nights at the Spinnaker taking in all the fun.
We didn't find all of the entertainment options to our liking, however, the two that we did attend were really enjoyable. The first was the crew show that showcased some of the musical and dancing talent of the Star's crew members. Although not entertainment professionals, the featured crew members were very entertaining and always gave their all. Some of them even rivaled the professional entertainment. The one professional evening show we attended was called "Elements" and was a visual and music presentation with the motif of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. With magic and acrobatics, it resembled something Cirque de Soleil might have presented. It was an excellent show and I would definitely see it again if given the chance.
Another area that we had some concern about prior to the cruise was the logistics (embarkment, disembarkation, etc.). We'd heard that sometimes these procedures are long and complicated. We did not find this to be the case. We made sure to be at the Port of Los Angeles at noon on departure day so that we could avoid any last minute confusion. Our check-in at the Port was very smooth and with no problems. It was done in roughly 15 minutes. Our wait time to board the Star was also about the same time. In no time, we were in the Market Place Dining area, having our first on-ship meal. Disembarkation at the ports of call was straight-forward as we were all pre-cleared into Mexico. The final disembarkation at the end of the cruise was a little longer and slower but also not too difficult. As soon as we left the ship, we both were already wishing we could do it again. In fact, my friend has already put down a deposit on his next cruise with NCL.
The only major logistical change I would suggest to NCL is more use of computerized receipts. Several of the bars and specialty restaurants already used these which speeded up adding charges to your tab. However, certain things like deposits on beer buckets or beach towels were hand-written and time consuming. Also, the staff responsible for these hand-written receipts seemed not to totally have a handle on these. My friend had small hassles with having the deposit charges removed from his tab for a beer bucket because of the hand-written receipt system in use. NCL should seriously consider computerizing everything on board so that a quick electronic receipt can be generated and searched quickly when necessary.
One nice thing about the cruise was simply when we took it. Since it was during Spring Break, the ship had a lot of younger college students on board and this lead to a vibrancy and festivity that were both unexpected and welcome. The students knew how to have a good time and still remained behaved. There was no rowdiness at all, just lots of good times happening. It created a nice happy atmosphere that seemed to spread to all of the passengers, young and older.
Another positive here was the NCL seems to be gay-friendly. The Star held a "Friends of Dorothy" gathering in the Star Lounge every night at 6:30 pm and this was advertised in the daily ship's newsletter. It's nice to see this kind of support from a cruise line.
All in all, cruising on the NCL Norwegian Star made for a great first-time cruise experience. I hope there will be another similar one in my future.